Here's lesson two!
Remember to begin you story at the point where the character's life
has or very quickly experiences a big problem that has stopped their
That's not to say you're not supposed to know the
backstory, you do. The trick is to trickle it in throughout the story
and in places where it makes sense and will have the most impact. This is
very important. If you don't then sections can read like data dump.
Backstory immediately kills the forward pace of the story, which is
why you need to ask yourself does it really need to be in there. If
the answer is yes, then make sure your transitions are clear. Do this
quickly as you can. Like a flashback, too much of this stops the
action in the story. One way to do this is to have the hero and heroine talking. Or have one
of them talking to a major secondary character.
Backstory is not something you need to be heavy-handed with. If
background must be given, do it later (not at the beginning). this will give the
reader the chance to be pulled the reader in the action of the story.
Don't forget stories begin in media res, in the middle of things.
Long passages describing the town, the location or pages of
internalization jerks the story to a stop.
Yes, you need internalization just not pages and pages of it.
To catch the attention of an editor you at the most a few paragraphs.
Having long detailed description of the beginning of the story about the
hero/heroine's childhood, pets, home etc. won't get you past the
first reader at a publishing house.
Always ask yourself, does this piece of information really need to be here? Does it move the story
forward or reveal something important about the character?
What is Plot?
This is one of the best explanations of plot I've found. Ronald B.
Tobias in 20 Master Plots has this definition— "Plot is story that
has a pattern of action and reaction." But Tobias continues, "Plot is
a chain of cause-and-effect relationships that constantly create a
pattern of unified action and behavior. Plot involves the reader in
the game of `Why?'"
The reader remembers the events, learns the characters and their
relationships between each other all while trying to figure out the
ending of the story.
Here is the definition of story. Story is only curiosity about what
will happen. A relating of events, that is distant from the reader.
In plot, the reader is engaged in asking why, while story only
The Pollyanna Williamson definition: Plot is when a character takes
action to resolve the story problem.
Plot and character are inseparable.
Plot is the function of character, and character is the function of
plot. They are bound together, like a Celtic knot work; you can't see
where it begins or ends.
To plot we also need a logical connection (action/reaction) as to why
a character makes one choice as opposed to another. Just because
there is a logical connection doesn't mean it has to be obvious. This
is what is meant by good writing in that is appears to be casual.
Here's an example: "Uncle always kept his old military
pistol in the desk. Aunt hated it, but she could never get him to
lock it up properly." By mentioning this you'd better have something going on later about
that pistol in the desk.
Another example: (An old one, but it works!)
If you introduce a shotgun in your story, you don't have to keep
shoving it at the reader. If you place the shotgun in the story, the
reader knows it is there for a reason in the plot.
Introduce the item so the reader sees notices and goes on. The reader should
remember seeing the object earlier when the appropriate time arrives.
Remember if you've introduced it, something should occur with it..
Plot gives purpose and structure to a novel.
Unified purpose and action is the core of plot. This happens because
that happened-cause and effect. The unified purpose is what helps
create the whole story: beginning, middle and end. This purpose or
goal gives the character motivation and will also bring conflict.
Tobias goes on to say in 20 Master Plots, "When you ask yourself,
what does my character want? You've begun the journey of plot. Plot
is action, it moves, its dynamic. It is also organized. When you stop
and think about it, when you begin plotting a story there evolves an
organization of character and the events to develop a complete story.
In Bickham's The 38 Most Common Fiction Mistakes, page 23 explains it
Something has changed.
Your character is threatened.
He/she vows to struggle.
He/she selects a goal and starts taking action toward it.
It sounds simple, but so many of us have trouble getting it right.
To keep the plot moving forward and the character in action DO NOT
give your character what they want right away or the story is over.
By not giving them what they desire, you create tension and conflict.
The characters must earn their happily-ever-after. The explanations
of why a character decides something in the act of trying to reach
their goal should fall in line with the type of character you've
Look at your favorite authors, how do they handle this? If it helps,
write down the techniques he/she used. By studying technique and
understanding it, you can apply it to your manuscript.
When you reach the end of your story that contains the climax and
epilogue, be sure the ending ties up all the questions that have been
raised in the story.
Just a note here, but the story question is concerned with the
A well crafted plot and characters readers care about
will have them turning the pages as fast as they can.
I agree back story can kill a reader's interest, especially if the writer Tells it. The reader skims that type of prose in search of an action paragraph. It's strange how we will listen to, and be entertained by a stranger's account of an event without needing to know anything about the person's past, but as writers we feel compelled to set up our stories. I don't do that now. If I can't weave in the backstory to show the character's motivation, or show what actually happened in a flashback, then I leave it out.
Tobias' distrinction between plot and story is interesting. I also like this simple one: A story is what happens. Plot is how it happens.
I have Bickham's book too. At http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/scene.php he sets out writing the perfect scene very clearly, doesn't he? On the large- scale structure, I have no problem, but trying to apply the small-scale structure (Dwight Swain's "Motivation-Reaction Units" ) wears me down. It actually stops me writing because I marvel at the cleverness and it intimidates me. Do you find that?
I think it's very important to have the idea of MRUs firmly imbedded in your brain so that it becomes second nature to use it. It does look like a very handy tool.
To be honest I can only take Dwight Swain in small doses because he's so deep. I go to Bickham first, then follow up with Swain. I have to work my way up because I think Swain was brilliant.
Yeah, the MRU's are brutal. But I like how Bickham has the Stimulus, Internalization, Reaction which is very similar and somehow easier for me than the MRU.
Maybe if you try Bickham's Stimulus, Interalization and Reaction that will work for you better.
Stimulus is external. Internalization is the character's thought on the stimulus and then comes the reaction. For some reason my brain handles this better than the MRU's. But I definately use the Scene/Sequel and we'll get a bit into that later on because it's so important.
I'm so glad you know know about Bickham and Swain!
Debra Dixon's book GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict is probably the best book on plotting I have. If you don't have it I highly, highly recommend it. She writes so you understand the topic and gives wonderful examples.
If you have any questions, let me know.
"But I like how Bickham has the Stimulus, Internalization, Reaction which is very similar and somehow easier for me than the MRU. "
Yes, that's much more straightforward. External Senses -which we are all encouraged to use but often ignore- leading to emotional reaction, then physical reaction.
Writers often tend to put so much into describing physical action to forward the plot and forget the emotional reaction of the character that enriches the experience of the plot. Is this what you mean by The Celtic Knot? (I love that metaphor, thank you)
I notice you've pointed to the importance of foreshadowing.
Do you find when you write new material in later chapters that you go back to add foreshadowing details in your earlier ones? I do. Although, I musy admit i had to overcome the silly idea that this was cheating. :wacko: Had to remind myself that this is one aspect in my life when it's okay to be manipulative.
In fact, I quite understand why some authors write their books backwards. It makes perfect sense, plot-wise because the first chapter, the most important one that sets up the goal and motivation, can't really be grasped by the writer until she knows where the story is going.
This would probably reduce the amount of drafts required too. What do you think?
I think, for spontaneous writers who love to see what's going to happen next, who allow their characters to lead them, this type of plotting would not work.
But for an author who manipulates words as a means to an end - one who is concerned only with the final effect - this plotting device might be a plausible alternative.
With the ending written, the story is contained and the focus cannot stray. Chapter by chapter would still be crafted in the same manner, using the scene/sequal pattern, but just written out of order.
I haven't tried this. Would you?
The metaphor for the Celtic Knot is that plot and character are an extension of each other. You can't have one without the other and so it blends in and on itself. I'm glad you like it. It made a good visual for me and I'd hoped it would for others too.
I write in layers. I try to get as much as I can the first time. Then I go back and layer in more description, tighten the plot. This isn't cheating. So much goes into crafting a good story a large majority of us can't get it in on the first or second draft.
I'm a combination plotter or leap frog plotter. I only know what will happen one or two chapters at a time. I do need to know where I'm going at least somewhat which is where Carolyn Greene's Prescription for Plotting workbook comes in. www.theplotdoctor.com
It helps you stay on track plotting while keeping it so you can still be creative and change things if you need to.
I'm a pretty slow writer but I am working on getting faster. The workbook helps.
I could never write a book backwards. LOL
We all have to find what works for us. What works for me may not work for you. Take whatever books and techniques that help you and build on that.
It sounds like your doing great, Rusty.
Lesson three coming up.
This is very good. Thank you, Polly! It's already got me thinking. LOL!
I'm trying to rework an old manuscript and I see now that I put too much backstory in the first chapter. :duh:
I'm glad your finding something useful to help with your writing!
If you have any questions I'll be happy to answer them.